* Patriarch Kirill makes plea to protect freedom of speech
* Blasts corruption in Orthodox Christmas Eve address
* Critics warn law may blur state, church in secular Russia
By Alexei Anishchuk
MOSCOW, Jan 6 (Reuters) - Patriarch Kirill, the head of Russia’s Orthodox church and a long-term ally of President Vladimir Putin, on Sunday urged the Kremlin to be moderate in new legislation seeking stricter punishment for religious offences.
The pro-Kremlin United Russia party proposed the law introducing prison terms for religious offences after a protest against Putin’s increasingly close ties with the Church by punk band Pussy Riot in Moscow’s main cathedral last year.
Two members of the band were jailed for the protest.
In remarks published on the eve of the Orthodox Christmas holiday, Kirill, who has called Putin’s long rule a “miracle of God”, said the legislation should not limit citizens’ rights.
“Any regulatory acts regarding the protection of religious symbols and the feelings of believers should be scrupulously worked through so that they are not used for improvised limitation of freedom of speech and creative self-expression,” he was quoted as saying by Interfax news agency.
However, in his most extensive comment on the proposed law, he also said that Russia’s religious laws did need improving.
“A fine of several hundred roubles (about $10) for blasphemous inscriptions on a church, a mosque or a synagogue signals that the society does not fully realise the importance of protecting ... religious feelings of believers,” he said.
Putin has moved closer to the Church after his election win in December triggered the biggest street protests since he rose to power nearly 13 years ago, and after an anti-Pussy Riot campaign led to a surge of religious and nationalist sentiment.
Political analysts say the Kremlin has rowed back from its initial position on the law to take into account the ethnic and religious balance between the Christian majority and Muslim minority, a precondition for political stability.
Rights groups say the legislation could blur the line between church and state in constitutionally secular Russia.
Opponents say the draft law is intended as part of broader Kremlin moves to suppress dissent and bolster public support by casting Putin as the protector of religious believers.
Critics have also said the definition of offending religious feelings is so broad and vague in the draft law that it risks being ineffective or applied selectively.
The Russian Orthodox Church has been resurgent since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 with about three in four of Russia’s 143 million calling themselves followers. The majority were outraged by the Pussy Riot protest last February, although far fewer supported the tough sentences, opinion polls showed.
Kirill, who did not mention the punk protest, which the band said was an anti-Kremlin stunt not aimed at offending believers, urged peaceful responses to anti-church “incidents”.
“It is not the first time the Church has faced acts aimed at desecration and sacrilege of its relics and the abuse of its believers’ feelings,” he said. “The key thing is that resistance to blasphemy should be adequate and free from aggression.”
Kirill also offered support for Putin’s battle against graft, declared in a public address last month.
Kremlin critics say corruption has flourished under Putin, with Russia ranking 133rd out of 174 states, along with Honduras and Guayana, in the Corruption Perception Index compiled by Transparency International.
Kirill has been accused by critics of leading a lavish lifestyle, which reportedly included living in a luxurious apartment and wearing an expensive watch.